The Benet people, one of the indigenous minority groups in Uganda that has occupied the slopes of Mountain Elgon since time immemorial have once again come out to demand for their land rights and permanently resettlement.
The question of land rights for the Benet people started dates back to 1936 when they lost their ancestral land to the British government having gazetted the whole mountain and forest which was later declared a Central Forest Reserve without consultations from the dwellers.
At that time, the British government never considered the Benet for any developments but instead ignored them since they were not educated and could achieve little in demanding their rights.
The move taken by the British government left the Benet people suffering due to lack of services since the forest was their source of livelihood. From the forest, they sourced herbal medicine as well as Bamboo baskets that they gave to the people on the foothills of Mount Elgon in exchange for green vegetables.
When Ugandan government was established after Independence, the status quo was maintained. The plight of the Benet was never considered. It rather worsened the situation when government turned the Central Forest Reserve into a national park in 1963.
The establishment of the national park ushered in a stricter legal regime than there was before. This also introduced the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) that employed armed wardens to supervise the park for enforcement. There have been reports of these wardens assaulting the Benet who try to access the park.
Elder Moses Muwanga Chekwengu, the Founder and Patron of the Benet Lobby Group who has dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of the Benet told SoftPower News that he will successfully retire to his grave once his people are resettled and allowed to enjoy their land rights.
“Our people have kept on suffering, they used to draw their livelihood from bamboo baskets and would exchange these for vegetables with people on the lower slopes of the mountain. It was not until the first children went to school and began advocating for them and that was me. I was the first person to go to school among the Benet and that was in 1956 at 13 years since there were no schools in the mountain,” Chekwengu said.
“We have lost so many people and because we don’t have power, we have lost many cases,” Chekwengu lamented.
In 1973, Chekwengu succeeded in lobbying government to have the Benet recognized in the laws as the indigenous people who have stayed along Mountain Elgon since time immemorial. Despite being recognized, they have remained landless and barred from setting up any permanent settlements.
“We were recognized but have still remained landless, the President then ordered that we be resettled since we were few by then. When the exercise of resettling the Benet was done in 1983, it was not properly done because they settled some but left out others without being allocated land,” Chekwengu explained.
Those who were resettled in 1983, were moved in what is called the 6,000 hectares, but another group of the Benet of the Yetui in a place called Kisiito were left out and enclosed within the National Park. These have since been labeled encroachers and have been barred from setting up permanent structures as well as denying them social services.
Elder Moses Kiptala commonly known as Governor told SoftPower News that despite persistent appeals for the recognition of their rights, government set up another boundary known as ‘the 1993 line’ which further reduced the area that the Benet were allowed to settle permanently.
“In 1993, the whole mountain was made into a national park and thus a number of restrictions were put in place barring us from grazing our animals in the mountain. And this is how UWA came in without recognizing the Benet people, yet it was our ancestral land,” Kiptala said.
He expressed concern that government declared the mountain a national park without settling the Benet people first.
“Once one crosses 100 meters from the 6,000 hectares, they are not allowed to build any permanent structure and they risk being shot dead on allegations of trespassing into the national park,” he shares.
“We have fear that as years pass by, government may come up with other lines to evict more people from their temporary structures.”
In 2003, the Benet People through their lawyers of Nanwgala, Rezida & Co. Advocates dragged government and Uganda Wildlife Authority to court seeking an intervention over their land rights.
Two years later, the case was settled out of court and a consent judgment was issued by Justice J.B Katutsi in which the Benet Community residing in Benet Sub County including those in Yetui Parish and Kabsekek village of Kween County and in Kwoti Parish of Tingey county were confirmed as the historical and indigenous inhabitants of the area that had been declared a wildlife protected area of national park.
In his ruling, Justice Katutsi ordered that the Benet community be left to stay in the said areas and carry out agricultural activities including developing the same undisturbed.
The ruling noted that the respondents (UWA and the Attorney General) take all necessary steps to de-gazette the said area as a Wildlife Protected Area or National Park after a physical inspection of the boundary with the Benet community.
Chekwengu notes that despite the consent judgment issued in 2005, government has not taken any step to fulfill the judgment which they consented to. Instead, he says, more stringent and “inhuman” actions have been visited upon them (Benet) by the authorities.
“All that we demand is that government fulfills the contents of the judgment, we can’t keep landless in our own country yet we are Ugandans and pay all the relevant taxes,” Chekwengu demanded.
Asked whether it would be possible to have them resettled in a place that is not gazetted as a National Park, he noted, “This is not asking too much, what was done was unjust and unfair, first by the British government and later Ugandan government”.
“We are not demanding what doesn’t belong to us, but it has been our area of residence from time immemorial, government would have consulted with us before taking such a move of gazetting the mountain area as a national park.”
In a February 5 2011 letter, President Museveni directed the Office of the Prime Minister to oversee the resettlement of the Benet in the London portion in Bukwo district. The London portion is a 500-hectare stretch of land that initially contained Cyprus trees.
However, in April 2012, a probe team instituted by the Prime Minister’s Office ruled out the directive by President Museveni to degazette part of Mt. Elgon Forest National Park.
The team comprising of officials from the Ministry of Water, security personnel, the UWA, Ministry of Trade, and the Office of the Prime Minister was formed to conduct an on-spot assessment after the President’s directive.
They arrived at the resolution after touring the London portion located in Moyok sub-county and interacting with the Benet communities, people in Kisangani and Rwanda camps in Kapkwata who were also targeted for resettlement.
The probe team, however, argued that the portion was a delicate ecosystem that acts as a catchment area for rivers Siti, Kere, Kaplegep, streams and two gravitational flow schemes. They said it should not be degazetted as this would lead to environmental degradation.